It's been almost three years since Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth made it OK to talk about carbon as if it were a currency, and for big business to impress you with its "green" credentials. Combine this with mandatory Energy Star ratings and suddenly you have a swag of TVs crawling out of the soil and onto shop floors — dripping with energy-saving smugness. Sony is one of the first companies to truly capitalise on the current mood and build a TV from the ground up designed to reduce its "footprint". But, is this the televisual equivalent of the Toyota Prius — all care and no performance?
For a TV that mixes it with the big boys price-wise, the WE5 is a plain-Jane in the looks department. In fact, it's downright retro with its two-tone cosmetics. Some could argue this is the least "Sony-looking" television the company has released since the Bravia brand was born back in 2005. Yet, while it may not look that good in the photo, in the "flesh" it's a little more attractive. If you look hard enough, you can still see some Sony design elements, though, such as the "floating glass" design condensed into what we like to call a clear "peekaboo" slot above the stand.
If you've seen one Sony remote you've seen them all, and while the latest version is friendly it's not necessarily "user friendly". For instance, if you want to enter picture settings there isn't a button for that: you'll have to press the Home menu button and navigate the XMB to access "Picture".
Ever since Sony launched its LCD range it has been on the cutting edge of backlighting technology, introducing the first LED-backlit television back in 2004 in addition to the well-received Wide Colour Gamut CCFL (Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lamp). The company is up to its old tricks and has invented a new type of light — called the Hot Cathode Fluorescent Lamp. The lamps themselves are quite thin — only the thickness of a pencil — and Sony claims they use up to 40 per cent less energy than a Cold Cathode.
This new backlight forms the basis of the television's "green" credentials, but there a couple of other touches that help the unit save you money on your electricity bill. The most obvious one is the new "Presence Sensor" mounted in the centre of the bottom bezel. It's essentially a motion detector, and can be set to intervals up to 60 minutes — if it doesn't detect any movement it will turn the screen off. It gives you a warning on the bottom right-hand corner of the screen before it does this, but it could get a little annoying depending on how long you set the sensor for and how "inactive" you are while watching TV. You may find yourself waving to yourself every 60 minutes if you like to sit in front of the TV with Mount Rushmore-like stoicism. Or, you can just turn the feature off. The final feature, and probably the best example of "greenwashing", is the Energy Saving Switch. It's essentially an on/off rocker switch, like they have on most appliances — including the last few TV ranges from Panasonic. While you could argue that many TVs use some power when in standby mode — that is, when the little red light comes on — most new TVs use less than a Watt.
But what has been the net effect of Sony's green gizmos? To first set the scene, the Australian Government introduced a voluntary Energy Star rating system for televisions in April, and Sony has been quite forthcoming by providing star ratings on most of its new range. Up until last week, the KDL46WE5 was the best-performing model we'd seen so far with a 4.5-star rating (out of a possible 6). It's now been bettered by pretty much every one of the Samsung TVs.
Amidst all of the Sony's Eco features it's easy to lose track of some of its "ordinary" television features, which include MotionFlow 100Hz and 24p support, DLNA streaming and a Picture Frame Mode.
One unusual thing about the WE series is how its ports are organised. We applaud Sony for installing two HDMI slots on the side of the device, as it makes plugging in portable equipment much easier, but is there any need for an Ethernet port there as well? Further connectivity is catered for on the rear by a further two HDMI ports, two component inputs and three composite connections. PC users also get a VGA port as well.
Apart from the overtly "green" marketing push, we found other ways the Sony is designed to sell as soon as we turned it on. Sony TVs have traditionally had a tendency for colour "push" — emphasising colours like blue and red to make images more vibrant. While this is correctable, we also found the WE to exhibit the same traits. While Vivid mode is usually cranked up to unwatchable levels of luridness, we found that even the Standard mode had its colours punched way beyond natural, and exhibited Sharpness levels that would make a knife salesman tremble. Everything we watched looked wretched, noisy and hideously gaudy. However, after calibrating the TV — and turning the Sharpness all the way down (from 15 to 0) — we were able to get a good picture out of the WE.
After our initial problems with noise, and the subsequent solution above, we were able to get some good results out of the King Kong DVD. Colours were natural and detail was good. We've noted this before, but while the HCFL backlight offers reduced energy usage it's also not quite as capable when it comes to reproducing blacks. That said, contrast levels were still fairly high and King Kong's fur pelt was still satisfyingly "solid-looking" and offered plenty of shadow detail. Motion blur — a problem on some of the other Bravia's we've seen recently — wasn't in evidence.
As you'd expect from a high-definition screen, HD content looked the best. Our test disc Mission Impossible looked detailed and featured intense colours and relatively deep blacks. Judder was also a non-issue thanks to the screen's support for 24p playback. While we were there we also cranked the speaker system up and found the on-board sound to be very good. Sound effects were punchy and dialogue sparkling clear.
To backtrack slightly, we did find some problems with jaggies during our original testing — problems that occasionally reappeared with our DVD tests. We didn't look forward, then, to the synthetic Blu-ray tests as they can "break" any TV not worth its image-processing salt. So we were surprised when the WE5 aced all of the tests including jaggies and HD noise. Adding further NR features would help this TV even further.
One problem that CCFL backlights have had in the past is "backlight clouding" — where the screen isn't consistently black and can show little pockets of grey. We're sorry to say that the "hot" version suffers from the same issue. However, under most circumstances, it's not noticeable and shouldn't detract from your enjoyment at all. Turning down the backlight also helped. Off-axis viewing is also acceptable, though not magnificent — with a definite loss of black levels at an angle.
Finally, we tested the TVs networking features, and found them to work as promised. We were able to stream from another PC in the office and navigate through lists of MP3s and videos with little trouble. However, we're not entirely convinced yet of DLNA features on Sony TVs, and find competitors LG and Samsung provide both better interfaces and improved format support. Solutions like Media Centre PCs and the PS3 still trump televisions though.
The Sony Bravia KDL40WE5 is a good all-rounder. It offers a smattering of high-end features and performance that is acceptable for an LCD in this price range. Yet, despite Sony's efforts to create a newer, greener technology, we can't help thinking that Samsung has effortlessly superseded them in both picture quality and power consumption with the release of its latest ranges. The Series 6 and Series 7 LCDs feature an LED backlight, and on first impressions, at least, offer a superior picture to the WE5. Look out for our review of the Samsung 7 in the coming days.